The Alex Salmond trial was expected to make political waves. It may eventually do so. But as the trial progressed so the coronavirus pandemic came increasingly to dominate the country’s attention – and eventually bring the rhythms of everyday life, as well as its politics, to a halt.
Still, we might be wondering what immediate impact, if any, the two events may have had on the political outlook in Scotland. Has the evidence presented in the trial, and the continued display of tensions within the SNP surrounding the position of the former First Minister, damaged the SNP’s standing? Has the economic rescue package that has been applied by the UK government in the wake of the coronavirus lockdown served to reinforce in voters’ minds the unionist message that Scotland is better off as part of a larger UK that has the economic firepower to deal with adversity? And has the Scottish Government’s decision to abandon its hopes of holding an independence referendum this year (thanks to the virus) cooled voters’ enthusiasm for an early ballot?
In truth, there is relatively little sign of any of these possible developments. That, at least, appears to be the implication of polling by Panelbase for Sunday Times Scotland that has been released over the last two weekends (see here and here). The rise in support for the SNP that was evident in polls conducted just before the UK left the EU at the end of January still appears to be intact. Meanwhile, the country continues to be more or less evenly divided on the merits of independence, much as has appeared to be the case throughout the last year of debate about Brexit, while there has only been a marginal shift in voters’ views about the timing of an independence ballot.
According to the Panelbase poll, support for the SNP on the Holyrood constituency vote stands at 51%, and on the regional vote at 48%. Both figures are very similar to the equivalent figures (50% and 47% respectively) recorded by the company at the end of January. If such a performance were to be realised at the ballot box next year, the SNP would replicate the overall majority it won in 2011, a success that eventually led to the 2014 independence referendum. Such an outcome would likely set the scene for a significant clash between the Scottish and the UK governments over whether another independence ballot should be held.
Meanwhile, unlike the polls conducted in January, this latest poll also asked Westminster vote intention. It puts the SNP on 48% here too. The advance in the party’s fortunes has evidently occurred across the board.
Of course, we might wonder whether the SNP’s high standing is the consequence of a ‘rally to the flag’ mood in which voters of all political persuasions invest their hopes in the incumbent government during a crisis – only to change their minds again when the crisis is over. Some polling has certainly suggested that the pandemic has coincided with a boost in the standing of the UK Conservative government and Boris Johnson south of the border. However, the fact that the latest ratings for the SNP simply match those that the party was already enjoying at the end of January suggests that this is not necessarily the explanation.
Panelbase’s poll at the end of January put support for independence at 52% (after Don’t Knows had been excluded). It was one of a number of polls that suggested that the immediate prospect of the UK leaving the EU had resulted in a rise in support for independence even beyond what had already been in evidence throughout 2019. So, the latest figure of 49% may be regarded as something of a dip in Yes support. Even so, it is still two points up on what Panelbase recorded immediately before December’s general election, and is in line with what the company was registering in the autumn. There is therefore no sign that support has fallen back below the elevated level that was regularly being recorded last year. Meanwhile, at 57%, support for Yes among those who voted Remain in 2016 continues to be well above the 33% level recorded among those who backed Leave.
Voters’ own testament gives us a clue as to why the coronavirus pandemic has not had much impact on attitudes towards independence. When asked directly by Panelbase whether the pandemic had made them more likely to support or oppose independence, as many as three in five (60%) said that it made no difference to their view, a figure that varied little between Yes (58%) and No (62%) voters. Only 24% said that it made them more likely to support independence, while 16% said they were more likely to oppose it. Both groups consist primarily of those who voted Yes and No respectively in 2014. As many as 75% of those who say they are now more likely to oppose independence voted No six years ago, while 62% of those who say they are more likely to support independence were already Yes supporters in 2014. In short, the data are a reminder that voters may well be inclined to draw implications of the pandemic in a way that reinforces rather than challenges their existing views on Scotland’s constitutional status.
Some of this tendency is also apparent in voters’ attitudes towards what should happen to the Brexit transition period. That arrangement is meant to conclude at the end of the year, at which point a new relationship with the EU is meant to have been agreed and put in place. Remain and Leave voters have rather different views as to whether that deadline should be put back because of COVID19. On the one hand, Remain voters (80%) are overwhelmingly in favour of delay – after all most of them are still doubtful about the merits of leaving the EU in the first place. In contrast, many Leave voters (42%) oppose a delay – they still want see ‘Brexit done’. That said, 45% of Leave voters do think that Brexit should be put on hold, a figure that rises to 50% among those who voted for the Scottish Conservatives last December. Perhaps these figures will give the UK government sufficient political cover to change its mind about the Brexit deadline, just as the Scottish government has already accepted a delay to indyref2.
Meanwhile, that decision by the Scottish Government only seems to have had a marginal impact on people’s views about the timing of another independence referendum. Back in December supporters of another referendum were evenly divided between those who would like it to be held during the Brexit transition period (24%) and those who feel that the ballot should await the completion of that process (25%). Even now, as many as 22% still hold to the view that indyref2 should be held during transition, while support for a longer timescale has only edged up to 28%. The division within the SNP over when an independence referendum should be held is also apparent among nationalist supporters more broadly. It remains to be seen whether that internal division does eventually open up a fissure that proves damaging to the SNP’s prospects in next year’s Holyrood election – but at the moment at least the party’s poll position, strengthened as it still seems to be by the Brexit decision, could hardly be stronger.